Fear Metaphors in Action: Using a Machine to Fight the Machine

The sequence from fear to resistance, to fight instead of flight, is as brief as the moment it takes to recognize the emotion. Fear of the unknown in general, technology minimalists and technophobes, and those who fear change, bundle their particular fears into a metaphoric category, one that equates plagiarism (even misdiagnosed) and Web 1.0/2.0 with monsters and the monstrous, a crime-ridden town where a sheriff is needed. Enter the supposedly magic bullet.

Plagiarism detection services look like a good solution, especially when responding to one of these fear metaphors. The fit is seamless, and the idea tempting. Nowhere else in writing pedagogy is something so simple, so NOT labor-intensive proposed. Why then, are plagiarism detection services not supported by the Council of Writing Program Administrators or the Conference on College Composition and Communication's Intellectual Property Caucus, organizations that have national clout and care deeply about writing and the use of best practices in writing classrooms? The answer is in their policy statements and recommendations.

The CCCC-IP Caucus, a part of the Conference on College Composition and Communication which is in turn a division of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), understandably centers more on intellectual property issues, and in its statement, Plagiarism Detection Service Position Statement (opens as PDF), notes that plagiarism detection services (PDSs) create textual ownership problems of their own with the common requirement that students' work is compiled and retained in a massive database. Granted, permission is given by students before submission, but when submission is a course requirement, choice is more theoretical than actual. This intensifies an unequal power dynamic between university/instructor and student and can hamper a pedagogy of trust, something basic to many writing classrooms. Both the Council of Writing Program Administrators and the CCCC-IP Caucus advise against using PDSs and suggest in turn, closer atttention paid to best practice in writing pedagogy. "The CCCC-IP Caucus Recommendations Regarding Academic Integrity and the Use of Plagiarism Detection Services" recommends the following:

Before using plagiarism detection services, educators need to be aware of the ways in which such services compromise academic integrity and effective teaching. The CCCC-IP Caucus recommends that compositionists (a) take a leadership role in educating their institutions about the limitations of these services and that they (b) conduct empirical research to understand better how these technological services affect students' writing and the educational environment.

Metaphors are powerful and act upon us even when we are aware they are being used. The shift from the best practices teacher-role as co-mentor/coach to the past role where writing teachers "policed" writing is unavoidable when using PDSs since it reduces writing to error/not error. This narrow view also constricts students' view of originality just when, due to new media, the definition is expanding. Finally, when writing is seen as primarily property to be bought, sold, produced or stolen, other important and more complex views of writing become secondary or dismissed. Foremost among these is the all-important role writing-to-learn plays in assembling complex concepts and developing analytic ability. Writing is more that transmitting information. Writing enables thought and eventually original thought, something that is much less likely to happen in a climate of fear. For writing-to-learn to happen in the composition classroom, there must be trust between students and teacher. Next: Pedagogy